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Among the Republicans

Every session of the Republican Convention opened with an invocation (after the presentation of the flag and the singing of the anthem), and closed with a benediction. A different man of God was called upon on each occasion. The benediction at the very end, after the acceptance speech by Mr. Reagan, was spoken by Dr. W. A. Criswell.

Dr. Criswell is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and in Dallas he is famous, not only because he is a powerful preacher, but also because his church and church buildings, which are in a cluster in downtown Dallas, are now—with the boom—valued at $200 million. Money is revered everywhere but in Dallas it is holy; and something like grace—a reward for faith in God’s land—attaches to real-estate success. Every day in Dallas (since journalists are obedient people, and also want to do what other journalists do) I read an article about, or an interview with, Trammell Crow, the local real-estate king, who has built many of the glass skyscrapers and hotels. Again and again I read that Trammell Crow was worth about a billion dollars. Dr. Criswell wasn’t in that class, but—offering benediction to the Republicans where Trammell Crow could offer only welcome and money—he trailed his own double glory.

On the Sunday after the convention, when most of the delegates and press had gone away, and the congregation was nearly pure Dallas again, Dr. Criswell preached on “The White Throne Judgment.” The title of his sermon was displayed in movable letters—like the title of a film or play—outside his redbrick auditorium. The auditorium—big, square, plain except for the colored glass—was packed.

People like myself, arriving late, or without reserved places, stood at the back. The time came when we all had to kneel; and it was hard for me then, kneeling with the others, heads bowed in prayer all around me, to continue making notes on my own Sheraton-Dallas Hotel bedside pad.

The choir wore dark red gowns. Dr. Criswell, like Mrs. Reagan at her first appearance in the convention hall, wore white or cream or a very pale color. The color contrast would have helped the television picture. There was a television camera in the aisle between the pews of Dr. Criswell’s church. The service was being televised live, and a note in the program sheet (which also contained a “decision card”) said that video cassettes of the service could be obtained from the “Communications Department” of the church.

Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.

In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS….”

AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.

God is like his LAWS!” Dr. Criswell thundered. “There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity.”

From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of “laws” run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.

The great Judgment Day comes at the end of time, history, civilization…. The whole universe shall be turned to conflagration…. The caverns beneath this earth, the whole thing, shall be turned to dreadful fire and fury when the Lord cleanses this earth and purges this earth…when God comes to the end of the world.”

A wonderful cosmic idea, God coming to the end of the world: barely imaginable. But even less imaginable was the idea that many of the people in the auditorium were to be saved in some way from the cosmic nothingness; and that it was open to anyone to be saved. You could make a start by filling in the decision card in the program sheet; and, as in a hotel breakfast card where you put a tick beside the chosen hour of your breakfast service, so on the decision card you could put a tick beside the hour of the service that had awakened you. So commonplace and everyday was the idea of religious salvation and decision here.

Many people, like myself, had come only for the Criswell sermon. We didn’t wait for the hymn or the reception of new members.

To leave the air-conditioned auditorium and go outside was to appreciate anew the extent of the church’s properties, many of them named after Dr. Criswell. It was also—though the shadows of tall buildings made the street look cool—to be reminded of the one-hundred-degree heat of Dallas.

Most of the time you were protected from the heat, and were aware of it only as a quality of the light or in the color of the sky. But from time to time the heat came upon you like this, a passing sensation, not unpleasant, a contrast with the general air-conditioning, a reminder of the bubble in which you lived.

Dallas was air-conditioned—hotels, shops, houses, cars. The convention center was more than air-conditioned; it was positively cool, more than thirty degrees cooler than the temperature outside. Air-conditioned Dallas seemed to me a stupendous achievement, the product of a large vision, American in the best and most humane way: money and applied science creating an elegant city where life had previously been brutish.

Yet in this city created by high science Dr. Criswell preached of hellfire and was a figure. And the message of convention week was that there was no contradiction, that American endeavor and success were contained within old American faith and pieties. Karl Marx and homosexuality were on the other side of these pieties and could be lumped together.

The fundamentalism that the Republicans had embraced went beyond religion. It simplified the world in general; it rolled together many different kinds of anxieties—schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia, to give just a few; and it offered the simplest, the vaguest solution: Americanism, the assertion of the American self. Practical matters were in the party’s printed platform and remained locked up there. Apart from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s speech about foreign affairs, there had been very little of purely political discussion. Americanism had been the theme of the convention, now defiant, now sentimental, as in Mr. Reagan’s acceptance speech. Fundamentalism, in its Republican political interpretation, was not just a grim business; it was as stylish as Mr. Reagan himself. The Republicans were “pro-life.” That meant anti-abortion; but during the week another, metaphorical, meaning began to be attached to the word. To be pro-life was to be vigorous, joyful, and optimistic; it was to turn away from the gloom and misery of the other side, who talked of problems and taxes.

Not all the Republicans at the convention were Christian. There was an Asian group. There are said to be twenty thousand Asian Indians in the Dallas–Fort Worth area; and the Hindu interpretation of Americanism and Republicanism, as recorded in the Asian-American caucus booklet, was illuminating of both immigrants and hosts.

Indians immigrated to USA to pursue their”dream” achieve fully their potentials in this land of “Opportunities.” They came in pursuit of their dreams, visions, happiness and to achieve excellence…. During the last few years most of the people have changed from “Green card holder” status to that of “citizens,”thus enabling themselves to be full participants in socioeconomic and political processes. They have chosen, by their free will, the USA as the “karmabhumi”—the land of Karma or action.

Texas as the theater of karma—what would Trammell Crow have made of that? But it was, really, no more than a Hindu version of Dr. Criswell’s fundamentalism, and in this Hindu version certain things could be seen fresh. To embrace one’s economic opportunity and good fortune was more than a political act; it was also an act of religion, the embracing of one’s karma. Religion, as a political attitude, in this setting, could be a form of self-love, and applauded.

A reporter, one of the many thousands present, said to me: “A convention is like a smorgasbord.” There were any number of events outside the convention hall. The press office, the Media Operations Center, issued a calendar every day, four pages listing about fifty events—press conferences, delegate meetings, breakfasts, lunches, parties, distinguished names, fashionable names, crankish organizations, special-interest groups, all competing for attention.

On the first morning, for instance, what was the best thing to do? Wasn’t there talk of a magazine-sponsored tour of smart Dallas houses? Or was one to go to the convention center and go through the security there, to hear Miss Texas sing the national anthem and to listen to an address by the overworked Trammell Crow? Or—and this was right in my own Sheraton-Dallas Hotel:

11:00 AM. Press conference, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips, Populist Conservative Tax Coalition. Subject: “Are Liberals Soft on Communism?” Guest speaker: Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther.

Eldridge Cleaver! One of the famous names of the late 1960s: the self-confessed rapist of white women, the man who had spent years in jail, the Black Muslim, the author of Soul on Ice (1968), not really a book, more an assemblage of jottings, but a work of extraordinary violence, answering the mood of that time. In 1969, when for a few weeks I had been in the United States, I had heard it said of Cleaver that he was going to die one day in a shoot-out with the FBI. That hadn’t happened. Cleaver had found asylum in Algeria and then in France; he had become homesick there and had returned, a born-again Christian, to the United States.

In Paris earlier this year I had met a man who had made an important film about Cleaver during the revolutionary days of the late 1960s. The film man now regarded that time, which had its glory, as a time of delusion. And now Cleaver himself was part of a side-show—or so I thought of it—at the Republican convention.

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